I was just coming off of a perfect, dream-like week in Mexico. Our spicy, Spanish-speaking neighbor, it seemed every American but me had the pleasure of vacationing south of the border at some point. Strangely, it was missing from my travelogue. On the cusp of a 6 month backpacking trip through South America, it felt like the perfect time to fix that.
Of course I had heard the bad news about Mexico in the past, and been warned by friends and family who wearily questioned my travel plans. “Why would you go to Mexico? It’s dangerous down there.” “Stay out of Mexico” my father ordered firmly. I knew where they were coming from but, I also knew better than to let everything I see on the news influence my decisions. I had heard a lot of great things about Mexico, too. I just had to get down and see what all the fuss was about.
Oh, and did I see! A good friend joined me for the first week, and together we seized the peninsula for all it was worth. Our days were filled with sun, cenotes, Caribbean beaches, awe-inspiring ruins, and a cuisine unrivaled elsewhere in the world. Our nights were spent gushing fondly over our newfound paradise with other travelers as we sipped on Coronas and Mezcal. I could only scoff thinking back on the cynical remarks I got from friends and family before I left. Clearly these people just needed to come see for themselves that no pasa nada. Everything’s fine.
Sun, cenotes, and the best food in the entire world: Mexico!
Then it happened. My friend flew back to the states, and the very next morning, I awoke to the news that there had been a shooting in Playa del Carmen, just blocks away from our Airbnb. The shooting received international attention as it happened at a music festival, and 5 foreigners were killed. This was a part of Mexico that thrives on tourism and therefore, was long considered safe and exempt from the violence that plagues other parts of the country. Tourists wouldn’t come here if it wasn’t. Yet, it happened. My father’s words came drumming loudly back into my mind and this time I wasn’t scoffing. All I could think was, What if it had been me?
Alone and afraid, I barely left the house for the next two days. At night, I lay awake wondering whether I should really be going down to South America on my own for the next six months, if this was some kind of warning to turn back and abandon my lofty solo ambitions.
Until one morning, I stepped out of my apartment to find this beautiful “ofrenda” that the owner of my Airbnb had set up in the main lobby of the building. “Ofrendas” or “offerings” are elaborate, beautiful altars that are erected to honor the dead and are a very important part of Mexican culture. This one said “I love Playa. I love the World”.
Just like that it hit me that I had it all wrong. I knew that I had a duty, just like the Mexican people and people all over the world, to shift my response from fear to love.
I realized that by reacting with judgement and distrust, I would only be promoting prejudices and perpetuating the very negativity that inevitably leads to more tragedy. Adding more fear and hate into this world is not the answer. And Mexico doesn’t deserve that. We can’t judge an entire country with an enormous population on the crimes of a few. In the coming days as I began to leave my apartment and venture back out into Playa, I noticed offerings like the one in my building for the victims were everywhere, adorned with flowers, candles and handwritten letters. The people of Playa and Mexico were mourning on a grand scale. This is their country that they have to inhabit day in and day out. Nobody wants it to be safe more than they do. I felt their pain.
When events of this nature shake us, we have a choice in how we can respond. We can allow fear and mistrust to drive us further apart, or we can use them to reveal our common humanity and bring us closer together. I certainly feel closer to Mexico now having been there through this and witnessed how they reacted to such painful circumstances. They inspired me; they were the inspiration for this story. My appreciation, understanding, and love for this vibrant country run deeper than they did before.
I love how everyone here calls you “amigo” even if they are just taking your ticket to get on the bus. I love how they are superstitious and maintain a palpable connection with the dead. I love the vibrant hues that color every aspect of Mexican life. The impression that I had of Mexico after my first week was a place that is warm, happy, colorful, alive; a little slice of paradise right next door to home. And that is the impression that stays with me today and always. My neighbor and my amigo, Mexico will always remain one of favorite travel destinations. I can’t wait to go back.